The New Business Voice

By Liz Banks
Managing Director of Skillstudio Limited.

This article was first published in Issue 15 of Professional Consultancy - the journal of the Institute of Management Consultancy.

Your voice is the business

We rely on our voices as one of our main vehicles for clear communication. We probably spend a large amount of our working lives using our voice to make an impact - whether it is speaking in meetings, on the telephone or giving presentations. But it is rare that any of us consider having some voice training to help us realise our full vocal potential.

When we work with people on improving their vocal delivery, they are surprised at how empowering a commanding and engaging voice can be. They soon start to enjoy the ability of being able to convey their messages with greater confidence and conviction.

We work with people on many practical techniques that are simple to do to help the individual make the most of their voice. The skills that they develop can be applied across the wide range of business environments.

Preparing to speak

The starting point for anyone working on their voice is to create a relaxed physical state since any tension in the body can inhibit the power of the voice. It is therefore important to think about some simple preparation techniques to help reduce any hidden tension.

For example – think about slowing down and deepening your breathing before you start. To do this, try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth – making the out breath last for as long as possible. Think of the breath starting from your abdomen, rather than the top of your chest – this will encourage deeper breathing. As you breathe out – think of releasing all the tension with the breath. This technique will also encourage you to slow down. This is very helpful when you first start to speak – eg at the start of a presentation when nerves are at their highest and this can cause you to go too fast. A couple of deep breaths will help you to control the pace of your delivery.

Always check your posture before you start to speak – whether standing giving a formal presentation or sitting in a meeting. Your posture helps you to support your voice. It is very difficult to project a clear and commanding voice if you are leaning into one hip or slouching in your chair. Stand with two feet firmly on the ground and your weight evenly balanced between the two feet. Or if you are sitting, ensure that the small of your back is firmly in the back of the chair so that your sitting position is strong and well supported.

Projecting a clear, dynamic voice

When you speak, you want to compel your listener(s) to sit up and take notice of what you say. To do this it is very important that your listener(s) hear every word you say. If some of your words are unclear, merge together, are mumbled, or are too fast to absorb, your listener(s) will soon lose interest.

To help maintain a clear voice that is easy to follow, take your time over each word you say. Don’t snatch at any words. Each word has a beginning, middle and end – even if it only consists of one syllable so make sure each part of the word is fully pronounced. Leaving off word endings can give the impression that you are hesitant and your message will lack conviction.

The power of the pause

The speed of your delivery is also very influential in helping your listener(s) to follow with ease and assimilate the information you are communicating. Most of us tend to speak too quickly, especially when we are nervous. When we work with people on controlling their pace we help them to integrate the use of pauses into their delivery. The pause is a powerful tool that acts as a brake pedal to help keep control. I encourage people to pause at the end of their first sentence – for two to three seconds. This helps them start with a controlled pace and they are less likely to speed up once they start speaking.

Your listener(s) also need you to pause, as it allows them time to take in what you have just said. If you go too fast they will find it hard to keep up and may well start to lose interest – we are not able to speed listen. It is sometimes very difficult to make yourself pause – the sound of silence leaves us feeling quite uncomfortable.

A 2-3 second pause can seem like an eternity to the speaker, but to the listener it seems very natural. In a typical presentation skills workshop we practice incorporating pausing into our words – until it starts to feel natural and comfortable. Many times people say to me that at the end of a presentation, they cannot remember what they said - it all seems like a blur. This is often because they have ‘free wheeled’ through the presentation without full control of the speed of their delivery. Pausing allows you time to collect your thoughts, you will feel in greater control of your delivery and your mind will be less likely to go blank.

Using emphasis to enhance the meaning

I often find that a presenter has a clear message that they feel passionately about but this is not coming across to their listener(s). This is because they are not taking advantage of the delivery techniques they can use to enhance the impact of their message.

I hear phrases such as: ‘this is a very innovative idea… ‘, ‘we have made huge improvements in this area...’, ‘this is something that we are particularly proud of…’. However the way in which these lines are delivered can often convey the opposite meaning to what is intended. The key element missing here is the use of emphasis on the ‘power words’. If you emphasise these words you will create a stronger influence over your meaning.

Take the line “I never said he stole the money”. Try saying it three times each time emphasising one of these words: - ‘I’, then ‘stole’, then ‘money’. See how the meaning is influenced by the different use of emphasis. Emphasis is a key vocal technique that is very effective. Emphasise the first word of your sentence and you will grab your listener(s) attention. Emphasise the last word of your sentence and you will avoid trailing off and running out of energy at the end of the sentence.

We help people to develop the use of emphasis through some simple practical exercises. For example we get them to read out aloud a poem or short piece of text – and to exaggerate the emphasis of certain words. This helps them to develop greater awareness and to control their use of emphasis. They are always surprised at how different their voices sound. The use of emphasis encourages the use of new dynamic qualities that were not used before.

Developing your tone of voice

People often come to our workshops complaining that they have a monotone voice which is a switch off for any audience. Some people have a naturally wide range in tone, others are more restricted.

One way to help influence your tone of voice is to adopt a role when you are speaking. A very successful one to help encourage greater range is to take on the role of the storyteller and imagining that your message is a very exciting story. This will help encourage greater energy and variety in your tone of voice. If your voice is naturally soft, imagine you are a politician giving a keynote speech – this should encourage more strength and conviction in your voice.

If your tone is naturally strong or abrasive imagine that you are comforting a young child – this should encourage a softer, more engaging tone of voice. The key is to achieve greater variety in your tone to help make your voice less predictable to your listener(s).

A strong voice that suddenly softens or a soft voice that is suddenly more emphatic can help to grab the attention or bring back an audience who you feel have switched off.

Developing your vocal skills further

Using your voice is a very physical activity and requires a lot of energy if used to its full potential. Here are five simple exercises that you can do to develop your vocal skills further:

1.

Practise reading out aloud to help increase your vocal stamina. Try reading an extract from the newspaper over the sound of the radio or television as this will also help to increase your vocal energy.

2.

Underline words in the text to emphasise – and practice exaggerating these words to help gain greater control over emphasis.

3.

Over exaggerate the words in the text by drawing them out as much as possible – to help improve pronunciation of each syllable and avoid snatching at words.

4.

Practise saying tongue twisters – to help warm up your voice and your facial muscles before a presentation. Mouth them silently, exaggerating the movement of the mouth to warm up the face or say them out aloud to warm up the voice.

5.

Practise out aloud any difficult words, terms or phrases in a presentation beforehand. Practice by over-exaggerating the pronunciation of each syllable of the word. You are less likely to trip up over them or rush them when you actually present them.

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About the Author

Liz Banks is Managing Director of Skillstudio Limited - a specialist communication and presentation skills training company that uses a highly effective combination of proven theatrical techniques with a pragmatic, business-focused approach to help develop clients’ presentation and communication skills.

You can find further information on all Skillstudio courses at their website at www.skillstudio.co.uk or call +44 (0) 8456 444 150

 

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